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Is a messy desk a good thing?

From Kate Lorenz

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( -- You've got multiple stacks of paper on your desk (not to mention the heaps slyly hidden under your desk), indiscriminate piles of books on your shelves and your cube walls are haplessly adorned with various items.

OK, so you're messy. Can you really be productive amidst all that mess?

Yes, according to "A Perfect Mess," the book by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, which claims to reveal the hidden benefits of being unorganized and cluttered.

The Cost of Perfection

In the book, the authors claim a messy desk can be the product of an effective worker and that there actually is a price for being neat in terms of staff, time and computer system costs.

"Neatness and organization can exact a high price and it's widely unaccounted for," they argue, and these costs typically outweigh their advantages.

One Man's Trash...

"Roughly speaking, a system is messy if its elements are scattered, mixed up or varied due to some measure of randomness," but that's only according to another's point of view, the book contends.

For Kristen, her messy desk was more an annoyance than a hindrance. In her 360 degree review process, some of Kristen's co-workers and employees commented that her desk was a disaster and that she appeared disorganized.

But, she was highly praised in these same reviews for her timeliness, leadership ability, communication skills, strategic thinking and ability to get things done. She has received several promotions throughout her career and is now a vice president with her firm.

Depending on what industry you work in, a cluttered workspace may not be damning at all.

Success Among Workspace Anarchy

Feelings toward workspace chaos can be strong. The book cites a Bradford, Penn. police chief who actually was fired for not having a neat desk.

"Fortunately for the world," the book states, "Albert Einstein did not work for... the city of Bradford. Einstein's desk at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, was maintained by all personal and photographic accounts, in a stupendous disarray."

The general assumption is that success is related to organization. We usually associate piles of paper and disorder with being ineffective and undisciplined. But, according to a study of the behavioral profiles of more than 240 presidents, CEOs and chief operating officers, by PsyMax Solutions, a human capital assessment firm, CEOs actually are more creative, but less organized.

"According to our findings, company heads are decidedly less organized than their subordinates," said Dr. Wayne Nemeroff, PsyMax Solutions CEO.

This finding jibes with the book's assertion that messiness tends to increase sharply with increased education, salary and experience.

And, on the flipside, the authors point out that there has been no research to directly support the benefits of neatness. Instead, accounts touting the wonders of order usually are anecdotal (and delivered by professional organizers).

A Method to the Madness

"Mess isn't necessarily the absence of order," Abrhamson and Freedman claim. "A messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. In general, on a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense. The various piles on a messy desk can represent a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offer far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide."

The Surprise Benefits of Messiness

Attaining complete neatness and order may only be an illusion.

Following rigid organizational systems and living life driven by a day planner means you're operating with blinders on.

Many new discoveries, inventions and creative projects are the result of sheer happenstance or inadvertently veering off in an unexpected direction. If you don't inject a little disorder in your life you mostly likely will miss out on the serendipity of an unplanned success.

Kate Lorenz is the article and advice editor for She's an expert in job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority


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